The Case for Reading Bad Books

“Life is too short to read bad books” has been a guide principle of my reading life for as long as I can remember. A DNFer from way back, I’ve never had any trouble quitting books that weren’t working for me. I subscribe to Nancy Pearl’s Rule of 50, and I sort of can’t wait until I turn 50 (only 20 more years to go, woo!) and get to start breaking up with bad books after fewer than 50 pages. (“Bad” being defined for today’s purposes as a book I don’t like and/or which I find to be poorly written.)

My reading time–like yours, like all readers’–is precious and limited. Life really is too short to read bad books, especially when there are a zillion times more great books in the world than any of us can read in a lifetime. But! (Come on, you knew there was going to be a but.) But sometimes, sticking with a bad book is useful and informative. Specifically, sticking with a bad book is useful and informative when you’re reading in a genre outside your wheelhouse.

For the last couple years, I’ve been working on busting beyond my lit fic comfort zone and exploring the genres I previously held (ridiculous, unfounded) stereotypes about. I have jumped into sci-fi, fantasy, crime fiction, and romance with guidance and expertly hand-sold recommendations from trusted friends and booksellers. Pretty much everything I tried, I liked. And it was great! My friends nailed the recommendations like the awesome pros they are, and they got me over my initial hesitation. Then it was time to head out on my own.

And that’s when things got interesting.

In sci-fi, fantasy, and crime fiction, I did just fine. I got a good sense of what I liked, and I was able to follow my taste down pleasurable new reading paths. There’s enough crossover between literary fiction and these genres that it wasn’t terribly difficult to find my happy place, and the recent trend of literary writers playing with genre (coughJustinCronincough) made it even easier. I’ve been able to incorporate sci-fi, fantasy, and crime fiction into my reading life, and now it’s not even really notable when I’m reading a book that falls into those categories. But with romance…. Well, with romance, things are complicated. Romance has stressed me out a little.

More than any of the other genres I’ve been exploring, romance has conventions, tropes, and formulas to be followed. Certain things that would be frowned upon in other kinds of books (like melodramatic interactions between characters and creative euphemisms for body parts) are forgivable as long as they serve the story and move the characters toward the climax. (See what I did there?) But there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there are, apparently, a floppity jillion ways to satisfy these conventions and formulas.

When I started out, I didn’t even know what the conventions and formulas were. Getting a handle on those was step one. Step two was getting a feel for the incredibly wide variety of writing and stories within romance and erotica, and that meant I had to try A LOT of books. Some of those books, y’all? Some of those books were BAD. Eye-rolling, deep-sighing, oh-no-they-didn’t-just-say-straining-erection-again, throwing-the-book-against-the-wall bad. But I didn’t DNF them. I couldn’t bring myself to quit. And for a while, I couldn’t figure out why.

Then last week, after a character in my current read said she was “damn” certain of something for the 3,235th time and I moaned a hearty, “Uuuuuuugh this book is turrrrrible,” my husband pulled the old, “Well then why are you reading it?” Instead of answering, I started explaining what made the book bad–repetitive word choice, poor development of the characters’ relationships, punishing kisses, sex scenes that even the characters don’t seem to enjoy–and I realized for the first time that hey, I sort of know some things about romance and erotica now. Not all the things. Not even most of the things. But I’ve progressed beyond the “I like this, I don’t like that” phase of genre exploration into being able to tell with some measure of objectivity which romance books are good and which, well, aren’t.

Reading bad books and learning to identify what makes them bad has helped me identify what makes the good ones good. Sticking with the bad books to see how they pan out, rather than DNFing them, has given me a better idea of what the spectrum of romance and erotica writing looks like so I can begin to place each new book I read in context. These are things I do on auto-pilot when I read literary fiction, and I have to learn to do them all over again with each new genre if I really want to understand it.

And that’s the thing. I don’t just want to read a romance novel here and there. I want to understand the genre. I want to grow as a reader and become more well-rounded. I want to build myself a romance/erotica wheelhouse. So here I go, kissing frogs on my way to finding a prince.

What about you, readers? Have you jumped into a new genre recently? What’s your take on the necessity of finishing or dumping bad books?

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